“I love money. I love everything about it. I bought some pretty good stuff. Got me a $300 pair of socks. Got a fur sink. An electric dog polisher. A gasoline powered turtleneck sweater. And, of course, I bought some dumb stuff, too.” ~ Steve Martin
I’ve made a LOT of mistakes with money over the years. I wish I could say I learned something valuable from each of them, but I can’t. I’ve made some of the same mistakes over and over again. It’s by examining the mistakes I’ve made repeatedly that I’ve probably learned the most. One small example: Stop borrowing big money to spend on non-appreciating assets.
The Gift of Gelt
In my early 20s I was fortunate enough to start a lucrative business with a friend. We provided custom manufactured airplane parts to the U.S. Navy and Air Force. At that time, the military had little concern with costs – they needed the things we supplied and they needed them NOW. There was a war to win.
Well, NOW was expensive. And extremely profitable. By age 24 I owned a house, a new Triumph motorcycle, a fancy sports car and I was partners in a fishing boat and a private plane. We also owned our own manufacturing building and all the machinery in it.
By age 27 it was all gone and I had opted out for what I was intending to be a much simpler, back-to-the-land lifestyle. I’d hit the crossroads between Should and Must. In retrospect, what that move was really intended to do was find a way to manage the stress hormones constantly flooding my brain and body by my adrenal glands. At bottom, moving back to the land was an attempt by me to become my own CAO – Chief Adrenal Officer. When there was no one being the boss of me, there would be no one stressing my neurobiology. Or so I thought. I somehow managed to leave myself and my own story-generating brain out of that equation.
Living the Bliss Life
But for a handful of years it worked wonderfully. I lived in a small college town in upstate New York (New Paltz). I built houses in the Spring, Summer and Fall, and began pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in psychology during the winter months. I put a down payment on a 25 acre woodlot with the intention to one day hand-build my own house on it, perhaps a log cabin hewn from the very trees growing on the land.
But gradually, the failure to mindfully attend to my mind-stories and sufficiently manage the stress hormones continually being thrown off by my adrenals sent my life into a scramble and all of those plans down the poop chute. The problem was compounded by the fact that I knew so little about my own biology. I didn’t know what adrenal glands even were, let alone the importance of learning to manage their output. The dots between biology, brain and well-being only got consciously connected for me in my late 50s!
Nevertheless, they did get connected unconsciously in my 20s, 30s and 40s. And money definitely played a precipitous part in the neurobiological mix. Either too much or too little money has a funny way of highjacking the adrenal glands (No one ever told me that there’s a Goldilocks Zone of Annual Income. It turns out to currently be around $75,000 for most households).
Those unconscious connections mostly showed up in my 20s, 30s and 40s in me mirroring the larger world with its boom and bust cycles. There’s a reason many wisdom teachings advocate for a Middle Path. As Canadian palliative care physician, Gabor Maté points out in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, boom and bust cycles take a huge toll on the health of the body and brain. And unskillful adrenal management lives at the root of it.
Gradually, I began to wake up to what money stresses were doing to my body and brain. Also to the need for making changes that would more effectively manage the money regularly flowing through my life. To address that adrenal-management need, I’ve developed a host of flexible, personal contemplative practices. From formal sitting mindfulness practice, to breathing practices, to “hot tub practice,” to deep relaxation practice, to puppy-cuddle practice, to Golden Rule of Neuroscience practice – whatever actually works for me personally to reduce the levels of stress hormones cascading through body and brain on any day, I happily place into service.
John Kabat-Zinn points out that “even a stone can be a teacher.” As a calming, “transitional object,” much like a cell phone or a child’s teddy bear, stones can also be effective totems I can place into service to help me become a skillful CAO. Mine happen to be four stones that I carry around in a little felt pouch. We used to give them as parting gifts to the children leaving our grief counseling program when they were done. Three of the stones are shiny and polished. They represent the healing work already done. The fourth is rough and dull, symbolizing the work remaining. My fourth stone is really rough and pretty dull. It’s also substantially larger than the pretty polished stones. Go figure.